“Who is Dora Maar?” That's the question a traveling exhibition seeks to answer. The exhibition, organized in partnership between Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern and the J. Paul Getty Museum, aims to explore the breadth of Maar's career in the context of work by her contemporaries.
This is the largest retrospective ever dedicated to her work, with some 400 works and documents from more than 80 lenders, and there are quite a few surprises even for those who are familiar with the books that have been published over the last 20 years and the catalogs for the 1998-99 auctions at Piasa, which caused headlines around the world. The exhibit shows clearly that there had been so much more to her than being simply “Picasso's Weeping Woman”.
Among the press images is Rogi André's portrait of her, circa 1937. While it captures her beauty it conveys little of her personality. In many other portraits she looks thoughtful, skeptical even. What struck most people who met her was her intelligence and that her speech would sometimes resemble birdsong. And to push that analogy a little bit further, walking around this exhibition, I sometimes felt that she wasn't comfortable with whatever branch she landed on.
Henriette Theodora Markovitch was born in 1907 in Paris. Her mother was French, her father Croatian. He was an architect and in 1910 the family moved to Buenos Aires, at that point in time, a boomtown. She would later comment that her father was the only architect in Buenos Aires who managed to avoid making a fortune.
Her earliest extant photographs, gathered here in an album, were taken in the early 1920s with a Rolleiflex on a cargo ship bound for the Cap Verde Islands.
In 1926, the family returned to Paris where she studied painting and photography. Among the works from this period, attributed here to “anonymous”, possibly a self-portrait or a student collaboration, is an image of her smiling into the face of a skull. The text on the back reads, “There you are again, my love, Dora Markovitch”. A humorous but also very dark image, hinting at what was to come. Shortly thereafter, she changed her name to Dora Maar.
Her images from the late 20s, of streets and boulevards in Paris, are not so much angled in the modernist vein as plunging, in a way that is menacing, sometimes bordering on the nightmarish, recalling German expressionism.
She made many friendships during these years, Brassaï, Laure Albin-Guillot and Emmanuel Sougez, a prominent spokesman for The New Photography in France, who became her mentor. When she hesitated between painting and photography, Sougez, recognizing her talent, recommended she continue with the latter.
In 1930, she set up a photography studio with Pierre Kéfer, a photographer and set designer. The studio was focused on fashion and advertising. Most of the studio's images strike me as adequate, perfunctory. I suspect that this wasn't due to a lack of imagination but because of the restraints put on them by their clients. The studio didn't work for Vogue or the other high-end magazines, but for mainstream publications where showing the clothes clearly was a requirement. The same would apply to the advertising images that went into them. But in some cases, the studio was given free reign, and suddenly there are flashes of genius when the images truly move into another realm altogether, as with the image for hair and beauty company Pétrole Hahn, with a tiny ship floating on a sea of hair in close-up or with a montage of a model in a bathing suit, superimposed with the pattern of sun-dappled water in a swimming pool.
The same sense of freedom can be seen in some of the nude studies that the studio produced for various erotic reviews, including one of Assia, one of Dora Maar's favorite models, bare breasted, with a mysterious mask, hanging from a gymnast's ring.
The curators have where possible included the elements, as well as negatives, that were used for collages and montages, such as a nude study of Assia, standing, almost dwarfed by her own shadow.
Maar and Kéfer parted company in 1934. She set up her own studio and her commercial work shows the same extremes, the mundane mixed with brilliance, the latter exemplified by an image of a model in a beautiful gown, a giant star resting on her left shoulder, shielding her head, gazing at a studio decor with mock stars.
There is a game being played out in some of these images, seeing/not seeing and being seen/not being seen. In “Dora Maar--with and without Picasso” by Mary Ann Caws, there is a suggestion that this was rooted in her childhood. She confided in her friend James Lord about the strife between her parents, and the lack of privacy she had suffered as a child. Her room had a glass door covered by a curtain on the outside, so that she could be spied on at any time.
Alongside her commercial work, Maar was involved in left-wing politics, participating in meetings, and, after the fascist demonstrations on February 6, 1934, signing the tract “Appeal to the Struggle”, written at the initiative of André Breton. Her social engagement can be seen in street photography she carried out in Paris, London and Barcelona at this time, focusing on the urban poor and the effects of the depression following the 1929 stock market crash, with several images I hadn't seen before.
But the images are way more complex than cause and effect. The views of dilapidated buildings in Barcelona, slightly skewed, recall the daunting perspectives of her late 1920’s images, disconcerting and mysterious. There are humorous observations--the lonely, armless mannequin, peering out of a open window, the facade plastered with posters and a sign forbidding putting up posters.
The aforementioned game is played out in several images, such as the blind street musicians in Barcelona and the little girls in London, clambering up a fence to get a view of whatever is on the other side, oblivious to the poster announcing “Money and Morals” by the Dean of Canterbury. Or the Paris image of statues, wrapped in sacks of striped cloth. As Cousin Pons noted in 1935, “She is not content to shoot obvious treasures, her talent lies especially in her instinctive sifting of the wondrous from the banal.”
Her best images are those that remain unresolved. And that includes pretty much all her surrealist work. She began associating with the surrealists in 1933, befriending many, taking part in their political deeds, exhibitions and publications. She was one of few photographers, one of even fewer women, to feature in the movement's exhibitions. The surrealists were notorious for reducing their female artist friends to the status of a muse. Dora Maar preserved her independence from the group, while maintaining close ties with its members, among them Man Ray. Seen here is his masterful solarized 1936 portrait of her, her finely manicured fingers resting on her brow, courtesy of The Elton John Collection.
Dora Maar had approached Man Ray after leaving college, asking him to be his assistant, which he declined. By the time this portrait was taken, she had become a very sophisticated artist in her own right, most notably with her surrealist photomontages and collages. In these, she differs from other surrealists who tended to use only found images, cut from newspapers or magazines. Instead, she mostly photographed the elements she needed, such as Untitled (Hand - Shell), one of her most famous surrealist images, a hand coming out of a shell, seen against a cloudy sky, pierced by light. Or the hand, holding a pair legs over the river Seine.
In other images, such as “The Simulator and “The Silence”, she reused figures from her street photographs, placed them against images of the vaults of the Orangeries at Versailles, taken from Gaston Brières' book “Le Chateau Versailles, Architecture et Decoration” (1907), to disturbing and mysterious effect.
Included here are several negatives and source images, for example, those for “29 rue d'Astorg”, named after the address of her studio, a statuette with stout legs, a strange phallic head, which she claimed was a found object, sitting on a bench. In an early version, seen here, the statuette was photographed against a studio backdrop of a park. In the final version, hand colored, she once again used the empty, eerie vaults of the Orangery.
She used other found images, such as in “Le Pisseur”, the interior of what looks like a castle, a young boy pissing against an elderly woman, the floor a muddy street, the interior image cut and turned upside down to resemble pools.
And then she met Picasso. In his book “Picasso, Les femmes, les amis, l'ouevre” (1967), Jean-Paul Crespelle described their meeting at Café des Deux Magots in 1936. Picasso was there with Paul Eluard, Dora Maar was seated at a neighboring table. “She kept driving a small pointed pen-knife between her fingers in the wood of the table. Sometimes she missed and a drop of blood appeared between the embroidered roses on her black gloves. Picasso would ask Dora to give him the gloves and would lock them up in the show case he kept for his mementos.”
It was the beginning of their nearly eight-year-long relationship. And according to the exhibition text, “the beginning of an intellectual and artistic conversation.” For Dora Maar, it would have devastating consequences. As for the conversation, taking up painting again at his suggestion soon reduced her role to that of a pupil. Picasso had discovered the possibilities of cliché-verre after Brassaï had left some unexposed glass plates at his studio. He and Dora Maar would make portraits of each other, scratch the negatives and gradually transform the images. He would paint her endlessly. Sometimes she would paint her versions of his paintings of her, though closely resembling his style, to push her technique further or to gain some kind of control over her image.
And then on April 26, 1937 came the bombing of Guernica. Within a few days, Picasso started working on his most famous work. Dora Maar photographed each stage of the process. The images are presented here as a giant slide show. According to Picasso's biographer John Richardson, the importance of her images went far beyond the mere documentary. In his review of Xavier Irujo's book “A Different Guernica”, Richardson wrote, “It also helped Picasso to eschew color and give the work the black-and-white immediacy of a photograph.” And when an official publicity photograph was needed, and Picasso was too busy to apply the final brushstrokes, he asked Dora Maar to apply them for him.
Shortly after the painting was completed, Dora Maar sold her photographic equipment. It seems inexplicable. She was at the top of her game as a photographer, having created some of the most striking images of surrealism.
The blame is usually put on Picasso. That he was jealous, that she had a life beyond him. In “The Sorcerer's Apprentice”, John Richardson's book about his relationship with the brilliant, exasperating and impossible collector Douglas Cooper, the author devotes a chapter to Picasso and Dora Maar and makes it clear that Picasso regarded her as “his property”. Being “Picasso's Woman” came at a high price. Picasso identified with the Minotaur, “to whom women had to be sacrificed.”
Their relationship became more difficult. Picasso started an affair with Françoise Gilot and then abandoned Dora Maar. After their break, Dora Maar suffered several psychotic episodes. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital where she was subjected to a series of electric-shock treatments. After that she went through analysis with Jacques Lacan. He detected a religious streak in her and felt that the choice was between encouraging it or letting her slip into madness, and so chose the former.
She would carry on with her painting. The curators do their best for making the case that she was, if not an important painter, at least a more than adequate one. I'm not convinced. The paintings from the 1940s--dark, moody, with strong feelings of solitude--strike me as being severely overworked, uncertain. Included here is a self-portrait from 1945. And it is shocking in its directness, her face emptied of emotion or any sense of connection, the eyes looking through the viewer.
In the 1950's, she began to focus on landscapes, then abstraction, but the works displayed here as others I have seen seem at times meandering and above all without any emotional focus.
And she withdrew more and more from the world. She turned down offers of exhibitions and publication of her photographs, dividing her time between her apartment in Paris and her dilapidated house in Ménerbes. According to John Richardson, she became a recluse in later years, not because she shied away from contact with people, but out of vanity, as she was bent over painfully with arteriosclerosis.
She would however, return to photography in the 1980's, making photograms. The best on display here have a mysterious haunting quality. Others, combining cliché-verre technique with daubs of paint, are aggressively scratched, but seen as a group, they strike me as aimless, angry outbursts more than anything.
Evidently she did retain at least one camera. The exhibition ends with seven images, of the house in Ménerbes and its surroundings, taken in the 1960s. Empty, but also strangely haunting. A strange, but still fitting coda, to a woman, who despite the ambitions of the curators, remains a mystery.
I shall go and see this exhibition again when it comes to London for the masterworks, and I think I'll skip the rest.
Centre Pompidou, June 5-July 29, 2019
Tate Modern, November 20, 2019-March 15, 2020
J. Paul Getty Museum, April 21-July 26, 2020
Michael Diemar is a London-based collector and consultant. He is also editor-in-chief of The Classic, a new free magazine about classic photography. He is a long-time writer about the photography scene, writing extensively for several Scandinavian photography publications, as well as for the E-Photo Newsletter and I Photo Central.